Teaching handwriting in early childhood

Brain science shows why we should rescue this fading skill
By: | Issue: June, 2015
May 22, 2015

Relegating handwriting to the back burner of early childhood education ignores the close relationship between fine motor skill development and early success in math and reading.

Technology isn’t the enemy, but jumping to keyboards and calculators before mastering pencil and paper may not be developmentally appropriate for young learners.

Manuscript handwriting does make a cameo appearance in the Common Core for kindergarten through third grade, but the standards have abandoned cursive handwriting completely.

Handwriting is the direct precursor skill to note-taking, writing and sketching out ideas and plans. We can document practical benefits for students who master legible handwriting, including:

Better grades for neatly written work
A tighter focus on content and ideas, not the mechanics of letter drawing
Better motivation and confidenceÑwith less frustration about handwriting

Education technology and blended learning advocates recommend teaching basic computing skills before the age of 5 or 6, and the Common Core standards’ computer-based testing is pushing down typing and computer skills from middle school to kindergarten.

Motor skills

As we assess these dissonant signals, the research-based study of childhood development should play a larger role. Digital keyboards don’t deliver the same fine motor skill benefits as putting pencil to paper. Here’s why:

When we print the letter A, there is something essentially different happening than when we print the letters B or C. When we first learn how to form these letters, we go back and forth, looking at an A, B or C and the letters we draw ourselves.

On the other hand, we can press the A, B or C key on a keyboard without thinking of their differences. The result is perfectly formed letters. We don’t get the benefit of following the letters’ shapes in detail, and we don’t have to struggle with our fingers. As a result, research shows, young students in a school environment dominated by keyboards and touch screens don’t recognize as many letters as those who learn to write by hand.

Enter brain science from radiological imaging: Letters are symbols, maps, geometric shapes and directional arrows, and the brain creates a special pathway for each one as we absorb those shapes and draw them.

We decode letters using the visual cortex, but actually writing them stimulates the brain’s prefrontal cortex, a region responsible for restraining bad behavior, sustaining attention and avoiding bad habits. These mental processes are essential for success in learning.

In a 2011 study, our team examined the academic success of 1,000 second-grade students in Miami-Dade County Public Schools. We found a strong connection between their grades and academic scores, on the one hand, and the fine motor skills when they were in pre-K classes.

Improved grades

Students who received good grades on fine motor writing tasks in pre-K had an average GPA of 3.02 in math and 2.84 in readingÑB averages. Those who did poorly had an average GPA of 2.30 in math and 2.12 in readingÑC averages.

Moreover, those who excelled at fine motor writing tasks in pre-K out-scored those who did poorly in both the reading Stanford Achievement Test (59th percentile vs. 38th) and the math SAT (62nd vs. 37th) in second grade.

We concluded that early writing difficulties can alert us to potentially global learning difficulties for young children, and that positive early writing experiences reinforce impulse control.

Clearly, developmentally appropriate fine motor skills and handwriting readiness deserve more space in the early childhood curriculum, and the benefit of more documentation and research. We can learn much more from these developmental experiences of these early learners.

Laura Dinehart is an associate professor of early childhood education at Florida International University.